Cambridgeshire Churches

book review

book cover

Cambridgeshire: A History of Church and Parish. by Norman Pounds. £25.00.
The Oleander Press

There is something rather illusory about Professor Norman Pounds' new book 'Cambridgeshire: A History of Church and Parish'. At first glance, it seems to be a guide to the county's churches, and I suspect that most people will read it in expectation of that - indeed a large proportion of the readership are likely to be locals, curious about their own churches and history. This is a shame, not only because that part of his readership will feel somewhat dissatisfied, but because what Professor Pounds' has attempted here deserves wider attention. Primarily, the book is a history of church buildings and the parish system in general: Cambridgeshire may supply his case studies, but most of the substantial points he makes could just as easily be made in relation to anywhere in England. This is not particularly a criticism - I'm sure that the social and economic themes he explores benefit from always being rooted in the evidence of a particular place - but it does suggest that the book has a wider relevance than the marketing would suggest.


Indeed, the general history tends to be better than the specifically local work. Throughout, there are tit-bits of local information that are in themselves fascinating. Unfortunately the (frequently interesting) assertions which he then bases on these tend not to be backed up with much, or even any, evidence. For example, he proposes that Ely was an ancient Anglo-Saxon Minster church, complete with satellite field churches scattered around the Isle (p.16): 'their distribution [i.e. the parishes in the Isle]' he writes 'strongly suggest a minster church and its tributary field churches, and it is noteworthy that the abbey (later the cathedral priory) of Ely was the patron of all of them'. In what way, we want to ask, does the distribution of parishes suggest what he claims? Why is it noteworthy that the most important local ecclesiastical foundation was the patron of all of them? The older Cambridge colleges are patrons of many churches scattered across the county, but didn't found them. Without more explanation, it is unclear why the evidence Professor Pounds cites is supposed to support his argument.

a vomiting waterspout at Over church...

Sometimes no evidence at all is given to back up what is asserted. For example, Professor Pounds contradicts the established view that Duxford chapel was connected to a hospital, saying instead that it was a hermitage (pp. 38-9). For this, he gives no evidence - either in text or footnotes. I, like almost all his readers, have not made a detailed study of Duxford chapel and so cannot say whether he is correct in this piece of revisionism. However, a professional historian should cite his sources: without that, it is impossible to check his arguments. Either this is shoddy scholarship, or a whim. Alas I fear it is the former, since a slapdash approach seems to run right through the book.

The proofing and editing is often very bad. Sometimes this merely leads to needless repetition - on p. 103, for example, where the following occurs within the same paragraph:

'Some, even in relatively poor regions like Wicken, became large, well-lighted halls. Such naves proved costly to maintain ... Some, even in a parish as poor as Wicken, became large, well-lighted halls, very costly to maintain.'

Sometimes it causes needless confusion, as on page 110 where the text goes straight from 'the parish had to assume responsibility for them [i.e. chantry chapels], and today, more often than not, they serve as ancillary chapels' to 'The church of Landwade, a detached portion of the parish of Burwell, was taken in hand by the local family, the Cottons, rebuilt, and made into a virtual mausoleum for themselves.' Is this a colossal non sequitur? Or was the latter sentence was supposed to go somewhere else entirely?

Again, in the appendix (on p. 188), he says 'Until recently, some half dozen parishes were each cut across by a county boundary, and in two instances the parish church of an essentially Cambridgeshire parish lay outside the county limits. (Fig. App. 1).' Fig. App. 1 shows something completely different. It is Fig. App. 2 which shows the parishes that are cut by a county border, but there are only five of them and, if the Ordnance Survey is to be believed, they are still cut thus.

More worryingly, there are places where Professor Pounds' evidence is contradictory. Fig. 3.4 and Table 3.5 (pp. 74 and 77) both purport to show the same data - both are entitled 'Percentage Changes in Parochial Valuations, 1291-1342', and both supposedly come from the same sources (the Taxatio Pape Nicholaei and the Inquisitiones Nonarum). However, they certainly do not. In the text, Professor Pounds writes 'In only two cases out of 119 was there a decline [in valuation between 1291 and 1342]'. This fits with the table, but not with the map, where there are well over two dozen parishes hatched in such a way as to suggest a decrease in parochial value. The map says there are three parishes that increased by over 40%, whereas the table says there are four. More discrepancies exist. Whilst this is partially a question of yet more bad proofing and editing it also throws into doubt the figures which underlie the discussion of the economics of the parish system.

This is a real pity, since that discussion is the most interesting and cogent part of the book (as one would expect, from an eminent economic historian such as Professor Pounds). When I came across the above contradiction, I therefore felt a little bit like paraphrasing Samuel Johnson and saying 'This book is both accurate and interesting - however the parts that are accurate are not interesting, and the parts that are interesting are not accurate'.

The second half of 'Cambridgeshire: A History of Church and Parish' concerns church architecture and furnishings, and (so far as I know) is accurate. Unfortunately, it is badly written and is mostly very basic. For example, on page 109 Professor Pounds tells us that chantry chapels 'were without exception built at the expense of the founding family'. Well, true, but that's just what chantry chapels are: and since the term had been defined earlier, this sentence is about as informative as saying 'Circles are without exception round'.

Moreover, the structure of the chapters is confusing. In both chapters 4 and 6 Professor Pounds goes through a physical history of churches, building practices in the former and furnishings in the latter. Some things are unnecessarily repeated, and in some things are said in chapter 6 that would have been useful (and, in some cases, more pertinent) earlier on.

Finally, there are two historical points I want to question. The first is what Professor Pounds has written about the development of the parish system in chapter 1. It seems that he cannot make up his mind about whether parishes were deliberately created as the product of negotiation and planning, or emerged of their own accord through unsystematic action on the part of generations of villagers. Professor Pounds explicitly endorses the latter position saying 'The parochial system developed without plan or foresight' (p.8) and 'it must be emphasised that the parochial system originated from below, from the people, and was not imposed on society by the Church or its bishops.' (p.25). However, in several places he contradicts this - talking about 'horse-trading ... between bishop and neighbouring bishop, patron and parochial patron' (p. 8). The following passage is the clearest example:

'by the thirteenth century there remained only the tasks of clearing up a few loose ends in the parochial structure, of settling a few disputed boundaries, and of ascribing tithe to one rector or another' (p. 8)

The second questionable bit of history is in the conclusion of Chapter 6, where it seems our author throws caution to the wind and descends into a sentimental reverie that is quite extraordinary. I shall quote the whole passage, because I found it so startling:

'The Christian story ran, like a giant modern strip cartoon, along its walls. How much a peasant understood its deeper meaning we can only guess, for by far the greater part of the population, perhaps as much as 80 to 90 per cent, was unlettered and incapable of reading or of coping with abstract concepts. However little he understood what he heard or saw in the parish church, it provided him with a dash of colour, of drama, of social awareness in a dull world of poverty, scarcity and hardship, and that is its justification.' (p. 181)

On what grounds does Professor Pounds declare 80 per cent of the population 'incapable ... of coping with abstract concepts'? What abstract concepts are we talking about? What is the 'deeper meaning' of the 'giant modern strip cartoon' that we literate moderns can grasp, but is beyond the medieval peasant? He talks about the church providing 'a dash of colour, of drama, of social awareness', as though it were morning television. What 'social awareness' does he mean?

Most disturbing of all, though, was the suggestion that medieval church decoration needs to have a 'justification'. Retrospective moralising always means bad history: what use is it to say that wall-paintings were (to quote '1066 and all that') a Good Thing? It makes for grand peroration, but I'm not sure it helps us to understand the history of Cambridgeshire, the church or the parish any better.

Ben Colburn


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